in English Usage
By Peter Meyer
Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers. — George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language"
The essence of good style is not elegance of expression but rather clarity. As the philosopher Brand Blanshard said, good style consists in having something to say and saying it clearly. Errors in grammar, spelling and punctuation are rightly called errors because they obscure the meaning of what is being said; they decrease clarity and interfere with communication. When you write something you want it to be understood (unless your intention is really obfuscation), and anything which makes it harder for your reader to understand what you are saying works against your purpose in writing.
Here I'll comment on errors in written English that occur so frequently that it is often not recognized that they are errors. If you don't already recognize these errors then once you learn to you'll be amazed how often they show up.
I suspect that the basic cause of these errors is the disdain in which the teaching profession is held in the U.S.A. and in some other countries by those who decide how education is funded and what is taught. In the U.S., high school teachers are paid about the same as garbage collectors (no disrespect is intended toward either garbage collectors or teachers), apparently on the theory that they are paid to fill their students' minds with garbage (so that students will not learn anything of importance except what they need to get a job, and in particular will not learn to think, and thus, as adults, will present less of a threat to the established order).
This is, of course, short-sighted on the part of those who administer educational systems. As the nations of East and South-East Asia have demonstrated in recent decades (and it is mostly East Asians, rather than (Caucasian) Americans, that you can see studying in the libraries on the Berkeley campus of the University of California — though maybe most of these East Asians are American), the best investment a nation can make is in the proper education of its children. A nation which trains its young people in the skills required by employers (so they can become wage-slaves for the rest of their lives) but which neglects to instill in them a curiosity about all things and a love of learning (rather than a desire for continual entertainment of a mindless nature) will soon become a nation of barbarians.
"e.g." and "i.e."Misuse of these abbreviations is the error most commonly encountered in written English. Time and again one reads things like: "Any beverage, i.e., tea ..." The writer intends to say, "Any beverage, for example, tea ...", but actually says, "Any beverage, that is, tea ...", which is wrong because although tea is a beverage there are many beverages other than tea.
These abbreviations are Latin in origin. The fact that Latin is no longer studied in American high schools (I admit that it is of little use in the modern world) may help to explain why many American writers misuse these abbreviations (though the cause is nevertheless probably as suggested above).
Use "e.g." when you want to give an example (or several examples) of something just mentioned. Use "i.e." when you wish to explain briefly or to clarify what you just said, or say the same thing in other words.
- "e.g." is short for exempli gratia, and means "for example".
- "i.e." is short for id est, and means "that is".
E.g., "Take any common object at hand, e.g., a pen, and apply your latent psychokinetic powers to it (i.e., try to cause it to move by the power of your will)."
Instead of "e.g." and "i.e." some people write "eg." and "ie.". While not correct this may be regarded as minimally acceptable, since it is still clear what the abbreviations mean, i.e., not the Latin words but the meaning ("for example" and "that is" respectively).
Anyone who uses one of these abbreviations when they mean the other may be considered basically uneducated and a danger to themselves and to society at large.
"its" and "it's"
This is a close second for most common error (maybe it's even first), and may even be observed in the writing of otherwise very intelligent people.
Apparently mastery of the use of the apostrophe is particularly difficult to achieve for some who write in the English language.
We find in one manufacturer's help file:
# wait till it's safe to send because some modem's hang up # if you transmit during the connection phaseThe plural of "modem" is "modems".
At least this use of "it's" is correct but actually there is widespread confusion regarding when to use "its" or "it's".
The apostrophe is often used to signify possession, as in "Jack's house". The rule is that "the X of Y" can usually be replaced by "Y's X", e.g., "the mind of the student" becomes "the student's mind". Sometimes only an apostrophe is added, not an apostrophe-s, e.g., "the minds of the students" becomes "the students' minds". Further examples:
- "the curvature of the lens" becomes "the lens's curvature" (Y = "the lens")
- "the pen of James" becomes "James's pen" (Y = "James")
- "the slow drift of continents" becomes "the continents' slow drift" (Y = "the continents")
- "the drift of the largest continent" becomes "the largest continent's drift" (Y = "the largest continent")
- "the length of the pass" becomes "the pass's length" (Y = "the pass")
Following this "logic" one might expect that "the X of it" would become "it's X" (as in "it's construction"). Nope. In English the possessive of "it" is "its", not "it's", e.g., "its (Serendipity's) construction was begun ...".
Since it would be confusing for "it's" to mean both "it is" and to be used for the possessive of "it", in practice "it's" means "it is" and "its" is the possessive. Simple, right? Unfortunately the possessive of "it" seems to be written "it's" more often than it is written "its", and so this error is the one most likely to become so entrenched as to be irremediable. But if that happens "it's" would come to mean both "of it" and "it is" — a state of affairs which would be both unnecessary and an unfortunate confirmation of the existence of a lamentable decline in the intellectual powers of the population at large.
Just seen on the web: "[The U.S. Constitution] also spells out how the government is structured, creating checks on its' power ..." In this case the writer is correct about the U.S. Constitution (which has been trashed by the administration of the usurper George W. Bush) but he thinks (incorrectly) that the possessive should have an apostrophe but is unsure where to put it (wrongly in either case).
Here's another example of the same error, from the website of an American astronomical organization: "NP.ang NP.ds = Target's North pole position angle ... and its' angular distance from the sub-observer point ..."
One also sometimes sees errors such as this one from a book about ancient cosmology: "The Star Temple people were guessing at first, their's was a naive approach to be sure, but ..." This should be "theirs was a naive approach". "Your X ... yours", "her X ... hers", "their X ... theirs". Is this so difficult?
In English "'s" is often short for "is", "has" or some other linguistic construct ending in "s". E.g. (to take an example from the vernacular), "It's cool, man! The heat's gone! Let's split!" Here the "'s"'s are abbreviations, respectively, of "is", "has" and "us".
"there", "their" and "they're"
Since these words are all pronounced in the same way some people have a hard time remembering which to use in written English.
"There" indicates a place. "Their" is the possessive ("of them"). "They're" is short for "they are".
Examples of usage:
- "It is there, by the window."
- "Their house is over there."
- "They're there in their house."
"your", "you're", "yaw", "yours" and "yaws"
A Serendipity reader writes:
I just finished reading the 'Common Errors' page on your web site and I thought I'd add one that I feel should definitely be included. "Your" and "You're" How many email messages or newsgroup articles have you seen with phrases like "you're computer is too slow" or "you don't know what your doing?" I have even seen some which use both forms, both incorrectly within the same paragraph or even the same sentence!
Alas, yes. Since these words are all pronounced in a similar way some people have a hard time remembering which to use in what context.
- "Your" is the possessive adjective: "Here is your dinner." (So "her dinner", etc.)
- "You're" is short for "you are": "You're getting warm!" (So "he's" = "he is", etc.)
- "Yaw" is a verb, and is something yachts (and maybe aeroplanes) do, when they're not pitching and so forth.
- "Yours" is short for "something that belongs to you": "This place is yours." (So "mine" = "belongs to me", etc.)
- "Yaws" is a disease (seems to have been around for quite a while).
An Australian joke:
Some friends are tossing back some cold ones at the pub, with a newcomer.
During the discussion one of them says, with an expression of concern:
"Eh — 'ear there's been 'nother outbreak'v yaws up north!"
Everyone immediately assumes looks of grave concern, except the newcomer, who, puzzled, asks:
"Eh — what's yaws?"
The others reply:
"Oh — thanks, sport! 'Nother beer f'me!"
"to", "too" and "two"
After reading this section an admirer wrote:
OK, What about to, and too? I always blow those two. <---- (cute, huh)
And, strangely enough, on the same evening I too made this error (a typo, of course) when I wrote (in a fit of cultural relativism) to a mailing list:
"Since the concepts that are necessary for the statement of the [scientific] law are themselves the product of collective human cultural/intellectual evolution, so to is the law."
Should have been "so too is the law".
"Too" is also found as an adverb in "too hot", "too sweet", etc.
"To" is the form used with verbs (e.g., "to run", "to think") and as a preposition (e.g., "to the hills", "to Samarkand").
"Two" is the number which comes after "one", a.k.a. "2". (Or more exactly, or pedantically — "two" is the name in English of the number that occurs in the conventional numerical sequence after the number whose name in English is "one". What these things are that are being named, namely, numbers, is a matter best left to philosophers.)
"who", "whom", "who's" and "whose"
"Who" refers to the principal subject, the person acting or to whom a quality is attributed, "whom" to other persons involved. E.g., "Who will give what to whom?" and "Who can say whom we should believe?". In common usage, however, "who" is often used instead of "whom", as in "Who can say who we should believe?". If one seeks a general rule ("rules" should express what the near-universal usage is) then we could say: "Whom" is best used when and only when preceded by a preposition, as in "To whom did you give the pen?" and "Of whom was it said that ...?".
There is also "whoever", as in "Whoever wishes to leave should leave now." If there is such a word as "whomever" then, for the sake of euphony, its use is best avoided in favor of "whoever", e.g., "Thanks to whoever sent this."
Some years ago there was a computer magazine in the U.S., of large circulation, which, in one of its issues, carried a full-page color advertisement which began:
Mary had a little lamb
who's fleece was white as snow
Since this should have been "whose fleece was white as snow", there were some red faces at the advertising agency. The ad had to be redone with the correct spelling, and it appeared thus a couple of months later.
- "Who's" is always short for "who is". E.g.:
- "Who's the lady you're seeing these days?"
- "The lady who's coming to dinner."
- "Whose" is a possessive word, meaning "of whom" or "of which". In the example above we may restate the sentence (somewhat barbarously) as:
Mary had a little lamb
the fleece of which was as white as snow
or just slightly better:
Mary had a little lamb
of which the fleece was white as snow
- "Remember Jill — whose mother you insulted?" means "Remember Jill — the mother of whom you insulted?"
- "He whose number is known to all" means "He the number of whom is known to all".
- "... using a type of substance which is still unknown, whose creative force is in an inverse relationship to the entropic force ..." Here "whose" refers back to "a type of substance", "a type of substance ... the creative force of which ..."
- "She always parks in the person who's not here's space." (Thanks to Dave Barry.)
This can be unpacked in two ways:
- If "the person who's not here" refers to a particular person (e.g, Tom, who's not here today) then this means "She always parks in the space of the person who's not here (i.e., Tom's space)."
- But if it means anyone who happens not to be here then it means: "She always parks in the space of whoever's not here." In this case it is better to say "She always parks in whoever's not here's space."
"practice", "practise", "advice", "advise", "licence" and "license"
In response to an earlier version of this section a reader wrote:
You've probably already received email messages about this, maybe even a lot of them. But in case you haven't I just thought I'd point out that in the USA the "practise" spelling is never used, although advice and advise are still distinguished as you describe.
Thanks to this reader for pointing this out: In British English, but not in American English, a distinction is made between "practice" and "practise". In British English (but not in American) it is an error to write "practicing the piano" (should be "practising the piano"), though even the British may be adopting the American custom.
If the distinction is observed, it is easy to remember whether to spell with "c" or "s": The nouns have "c" and the verbs have "s".
But in American English 1. would be "To practice law one must be officially approved."
- "The practice of fortune-telling is no longer prohibited in San Jose."
- "The advice of a lawyer rarely comes free."
- "To practise law one must be officially approved."
- "I advise you to use the vanilla essence sparingly."
Note that "advise" and "advice" are pronounced differently (voiced or unvoiced sibilant), whereas "practise" and "practice" are pronounced the same (sibilant unvoiced in both cases). The "spell-as-pronounced" school of thought would thus claim that in the case of "practice" the verb and the noun should be spelt (American: "spelled") the same. Since this means less to remember, it will probably win out.
A reader wrote:
I would add the usage of the words "license" and "licence" to the Common Errors section. As I understand it these two words used to mean something different, but because everyone uses them interchangeably, either form can now be used as a noun or verb.
I agree with this. Personally I use "license" both as a noun (".. a license to walk your dog ...") and as a verb ("For a small fee we shall license the use of this wondrous technology ..."), never "licence", but on this point I think one may do as one wishes without incurring opprobrium.
"that" and "which"
Which is correct?
The difference between "that" and "which" (in this context) is the difference between identifying an object and describing that object. "That" is used for identification, as in "Here is the pen that you asked for." "Which" is used for description (as is "who") as in:
- "Here is the pen that you asked for."
- "Here is the pen which you asked for."
- "Here is the pen that you asked for and which we spent an hour looking for."
The object of a statement has first to be identified to the hearer, which, when this is done by describing some quality of the object, is done by means of a "that" clause. This can stand alone, as in "Here is the pen that you asked for." If the speaker wishes to add further information concerning the object that has been identified then he or she can do so using the "which" clause.
One reader of this page believes that the sentence above should be:
- "Here is the pen that you asked for and for which we spent an hour looking."
Presumably this reader subscribes to the theory that a sentence should never end with a preposition. While this reader's suggested reformulation is perfectly OK (and thus the two forms of the sentence are both correct), I do not share his grammatical prejudice, one which was reportedly ridiculed by Sir Winston Churchill, who was once reprimanded by a woman for ending a sentence with a preposition. "Mr. Churchill," he was told, "one should never end one's sentence with a preposition!" "Madam," he replied, "that is a rule up with which I shall not put."
This anecdote has lots of variations, but perhaps the original (according to the alt.usage.english FAQ) is that Churchill was editing a proof of one of his books when he noticed that an editor had rewritten one of Churchill's sentences so that it did not end with a preposition, whereupon Churchill scribbled in the margin, "This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put."
Other examples of use of "that" and "which":
- "The dates that she cites are consistent with theory."
- "This is the house that Jack built and which he later sold."
The statement about Jack's house says: There's a house. Which house? The one that Jack built. Oh ... what of it? He later sold it.
- "She brought her dog, which caused general dismay."
Here it is her bringing the dog, not the dog itself, which caused dismay. If the dog, rather than her bringing it, had caused dismay then one would say "who", since dogs are persons too. If she had brought her dead dog, and the canine corpse was what caused dismay, then one would say "which".
If the object of a statement is already known to the hearer (so that no identification is needed) then "which" is used rather than "that", e.g.,
Here the writer assumes that the reader knows what object is being referred to. If there is some uncertainty he might write:
- "I am replying to your letter, which arrived yesterday."
- "I am replying to the letter from you that arrived yesterday."
The situation is a bit different when the object being identified is a person. "Here is the lady that you asked to speak to" is correct but it is better to say "Here is the lady whom you asked to speak to." Subsequent description uses "who" rather than "which":
- "I am replying to the letter from you that arrived yesterday and which caused me no end of merriment."
It is possible to describe an object which has not been identified, e.g.
- "Here is the lady whom you asked to speak to and who has been wanting to speak to you."
- "For any given classification of calendars there exists (or it is possible to invent) a calendar which does not fall neatly into a unique class."
Here we are attributing a property to an object whose identity is unknown, i.e., it is said to exist but we don't know exactly which object it is. It has not been identified, yet we wish to describe it, which is why we use "which" rather than "that".
Another reader wrote:
The phrase "A nation which trains its young people" is another instance (as with the existing or inventable calendar above) of describing an object which has not been identified, in the sense that the hearer's attention is not being directed to any particular object (although in this case the alert reader will grasp that a particular nation is being alluded to).>I found your page when looking for backup on the use of >"that" and "which", and I agree with what you've said about it. >However, at the top of the page is a sentence that reads: >"A nation which trains its young people in the skills required by >employers (so they can become wage-slaves for the rest of their lives) >but which neglects to instill in them a curiosity about all things and >a love of learning (rather than a desire for continual entertainment of >a mindless nature) will soon become a nation of barbarians." >By your description of the usage, should it not be "A nation that..." >and not "A nation which..."?
The phrase "a nation which ..." could be any nation; we're speaking of a hypothetical nation, and saying that *if* it has a certain property (trains its young people in a certain way) *then* it will have (or can be expected to have) another property (becoming a nation of barbarians). Whether any particular nation has the property referred to in the antecedent is a matter for observation.
Or to put it briefly, since in "a nation which" we are describing rather than identifying, it is appropriate to use "which" not "that".
Admittedly, however, there are cases where "which" and "that" are practically equivalent, as in "... which is to say ..." and "... that is to say ...", so with these two terms there is a certain overlap in usage, and so they are not clearly distinct from one another. Thus one could, if one wished, say "a nation that trains its young people ..." and get away with it, though to me it still has a definite whiff of erroneousness.
And there are other uses of "that" which are not covered above, the main one being its use as a conjunction, as in: "I believe that ...", "It seems that ...", and so on.
"loose" and "lose"
These words are often spelt incorrectly, but since they are pronounced differently it is easy to remember the correct spelling.
- "Loose lips sink ships" (World War II admonition to keep silent about military affairs.)
- "Win some, lose some." (Said with a shrug when things go wrong.)
- "Loose women welcome here." (Sign next to door of male college dormitory.)
- "Whoever wins, the people lose." (Said of the two candidates in the 2004 US presidential election, and more generally of all politicians who stand for election.)
To remember the correct spelling simply remember how the words are pronounced: A long vowel and a voiced "s" in "lose" (rhymes with "booze") and a short vowel and an unvoiced "s" in "loose" (rhymes with "goose"). Easy, no?
"uninterested" and "disinterested"
These words do not mean the same thing. Someone in a recent BBC interview mentioned that because of stage fright many musicians in orchestras (in the U.S.) are taking a drug (valium?) to calm them down while performing so that they don't miss any notes. They may not miss any notes, he said, but their playing is flat and unemotional, and so audiences are becoming "disinterested" in orchestral performances. Wrong! Audiences are becoming uninterested.
To be disinterested is not to lack interest but to lack bias. Someone who is disinterested is "objective", in the sense that they have no predisposition to one outcome (of, say, an investigation) rather than another. So while it is impossible to be both interested and uninterested in the same thing at the same time it is possible to be both interested and disinterested, e.g., if one is a detective studying an interesting crime but with no particular predisposition to find one person rather than another to be the perpetrator.
"principle" and "principal"
A principle (in the usual meaning of the word) is a formulation regarded as enduringly true and which is a basis for thought or action. E.g., the principles of liberty, expressed in various ways in the U.S. Constitution, including the Bill of Rights. "Principle" is always used as a noun (although the derivative "principled", meaning "possessing principles", is an adjective).
Occasionally we see "principle" used in an unusual way, e.g., the title to a song by Enigma, "The Principles of Lust" ("are easy to understand ..."). Lust not being a reasonable (but rather an emotional) thing, it is here juxtaposed with the idea of principles for its dissonant, but not displeasing, effect.
"Principal", as a noun, is used in the U.S. to mean the chief administrator of a school (equivalent to "headmaster" in British schools). As an adjective, "principal" means "foremost, first, primary, main", as in "the principal reason I am here is ..." or "the principal cause of this phenomenon is ..." "Principal" can also be used as a noun to mean "the principal people, organizations, etc.", as in "the principals in the deal backed out as soon as ..."
It is not uncommon for "principal" to be misspelt as "principle". We find this error in an article in Penthouse magazine containing the sentence:State Attorney General Bryant, in a 1991 letter to the office of Lawrence Walsh, the independent counsel in the Iran-Contra investigation, wondered "why no one was prosecuted in Arkansas despite a mountain of evidence that [Barry] Seal [a cocaine smuggler working for the CIA] was using Arkansas as his principle staging area during the years 1982 through 1985." (The Crimes of Mena)
This should have been: "... using Arkansas as his principal staging area ..."
Another meaning of "principal" is "money loaned or invested", and interest is paid on the principal. One also sees this misspelt, as in:
The culmination of decades of accumulated overspending by the [U.S.] government has created an aggregate debt for the United States federal and state governments of $14 trillion dollars. That's fourteen million million dollars. Or, to put it in a more personal scale, more than $48,000 for every single living human being in the United States, plus the accumulating interest. The interest on that government debt now exceeds all the personal income tax collected by that government. That means that the government isn't keeping up with the interest on the debt, let alone able to pay down the principle.
Should be "principal". Tough luck about those Americans, though. What was that about chickens coming home to roost? The chickens in this case being votes cast in federal and state elections in the last quarter-century.
"forward" and "foreword"
"Forward" is used adverbially ("go forward"), as a verb ("forward the message"), as a noun ("in rugby the scrum is made up of forwards") and occasionally adjectivally ("you're rather forward aren't you?" — with the implication that the person addressed is, as is said in the U.S., "out of line").
A "Foreword" is a preface to a book or a document, and you'll sometimes see it misspelt as "Forward", even by those who should know better.
"forgo", "forgone" and "foregone"
About half the time the first of these words is used in written English it is misspelt as "forego" — an apparently irresistible temptation for many people, perhaps because they assume it is related to "foregone". "Forgo" means: to give up, in the sense of not having what one could have had, as in "I shall forgo breakfast in order to attend the meeting."
The past participle ("In order to attend this meeting I have forgone breakfast") is seldom encountered and the past tense ("He forwent breakfast in order to ...") almost never.
"Foregone", as in "a foregone [predictable, determined] conclusion", is a different word, which in this case does seem to derive from the idea of "going before".
"affect" and "effect"
This is basically a distinction between the verb, "to affect" (to influence), and the noun, "an effect" (a result):
- "The effect was tremendous."
- "To affect the decision we should talk to the chairman."
"Every effect has a cause" is true because it is part of the idea of an effect that it was brought about by something (the cause). This is not the so-called principle of causality, which is: "Every event has a cause." It is a tautology that every effect has a cause, but there is room for debate as to whether every event has a cause.
While "effect" is most usually used as a noun, it can also be used as a verb, as in "to effect entry" (to gain entry).
"insure" and "ensure"
"Insure" is what you do when you take out insurance, as when you insure your house against damage by fire, etc.
"Ensure" is what you do when you make sure of something. "Ensure that he will attend the meeting!"
"beg the question"
For those who know what "begging the question" really means it is annoying to read statements such as "The gold price went up (down, sideways). This begs the question: Why?" Or "This argument begs several questions. The first is ...".
It is true that arguments, or persons putting arguments forward, are things of which we can say that they beg the question. This is to assert that the argument (or the person) is committing a logical fallacy, namely, assuming what needs to be proved.
E.g., "Did men go to the Moon? Certainly! Why? Because there are photographs of men standing on the lunar surface." The reason given begs the question, because it assumes that the men photographed were actually standing on the surface of the Moon, having previously gone there. To expand this argument, it goes:
- Men went to the Moon.
- They were photographed there.
- Therefore men went to the Moon.
This is not to say that the photographs (allegedly) of men standing on the Moon are not evidence for men having landed on the Moon. Of course they are evidence. But one has to examine evidence critically, and in this case ask: How do we know that the men photographed were actually standing on the lunar surface?
Most cases of begging the question are, of course, not as obvious as in the example given above. They are usually more subtle, and occur when the thing to be proved is surreptitiously introduced in some disguised manner (e.g., as a presupposition of some assertion), then used, perhaps in combination with some related facts, to "prove" itself.
This correct use of "begging the question" has become corrupted by writers who mistakenly believe that the term means suggesting, or giving rise to, or naturally leading on to, a question, confusing "beg" with "suggest" or "give rise to" — which is pretty stupid, since "beg" has only one meaning in English: to request humbly. It makes no sense to beg a question, except perhaps if you are a quiz show contestant, humbly requesting the host to provide you with the next question (because for some reason he has shown reluctance to provide it).
"Pressure" as a noun is a measure of force acting on (or exerted by) material in confinement, e.g., liquid nitrogen is stored under high pressure. As a verb, "to pressure" means "to place under pressure". This has a non-physical meaning also, as when a person is placed under pressure to do (or not to do) something, as in "The minister was pressured to conceal the facts which would have been seen as damaging to the principal players."
The verb "to pressurize" means to create a situation in which something is placed under pressure, this something being always physical. E.g., the air (or the cabin) in a high-flying aircraft is pressurized so that the air pressure is the same as at ground level rather than at the altitude at which the plane is flying. In a pressure cooker the vegetables being cooked, and the water they are cooked in, is pressurized, so that the vegetables can be heated to a temperature higher than the usual boiling point of water (and thus can be cooked more quickly).
Recently a number of political commentators who should know better have begun to confuse these two words, speaking of people as being "pressurized", when they mean to say that the people under discussion are being pressured, i.e., placed under pressure. "Pressure" is perfectly adequate to describe what is being done (i.e., methods of persuasion are being used to induce a change of attitude or behavior) and to use "pressurize" to mean the same thing is not only superfluous but suggests that the speaker is using a longer word so as to give the appearance of greater erudition, an appearance in most cases totally illusory.
"Pressurize" is also much loved by BBC sports reporters, perhaps aping some of their colleagues reporting on politics; or perhaps the political reporters who misuse the term were formerly sports reporters.
A reader wrote:
I read with great interest your "Common Errors" and thought I might offer my own little pet peeve. It's the word "irregardless," which seems to be used by many to mean "regardless". For example: "The war is going ahead, irregardless of the apparent opinion of the general public." I've heard reputable people use this word on the radio, and it drives me up the wall. My guess is that, along with a pretentious desire to make words longer than they need to be, people are mixing the word "regardless" with "irrespective" to produce the utterly paradoxical "irregardless".
I replied:You are entirely correct in your comments concerning the word "irregardless". The only possible defense would be that in combination with the final syllable of the preceding word it might be easier to pronounce a word beginning with a vowel rather than a consonant. But this is a weak defense. But I don't find this usage sufficiently annoying to lead me to include it. Its use does not lead to lack of clarity in communication, only to an indication that the speaker or writer is a bit of an idiot.
This is a word which is much-loved by government bureaucrats wishing to conceal facts from the people. Webster's Dictionary defines it as "as can be shown by argument", but the meaning has been slyly shifted to "as can be argued for". The difference is important. To say that some claim can be "shown by argument" (i.e., by adducing reasons in support of it) is short for saying that it can be shown to be true by argument. But to say that some claim can be "argued for" is simply to say that there exists some argument or reason in support of the claim, even though that support may be very weak, far weaker than the arguments or reasons which can be adduced in support of the opposite claim.
So we hear a U.K. government minister declaring "The overall level of education has arguably improved as a result of the introduction of the national curriculum." He wishes you to believe that he is saying that the level of education has improved, but all he is saying is that someone could present some evidence that education has improved, even though there may exist much better reasons for believing that in fact it has not (since, e.g., the new government-imposed regulations require teachers to spend much time filling out forms and consequently they have less time for teaching their students).
So when you hear someone saying that something is arguably this or that, beware. They may be saying nothing at all. This is a word which it is better not to use.
American vs. British Spelling
A few years ago in Britain there was some controversy around the fact that some British official body had recommended that English spelling be standardized by the adoption of U.S. spelling, e.g., that "sulfate" be used instead of "sulphate" and "fetus" instead of "foetus". British linguistic purists were outraged and suggested, on the contrary, that English spelling be standardized by the adoption of British spelling. This is typical of the sort of thinking prevalent in that decrepit society, which is continually reliving its "finest hour" sixty years ago, and which seems incapable of change, mainly because change would endanger the wealth and privilege of its established upper/moneyed class (that's why the society is decrepit).
If you are writing for a target audience of British linguistic purists then clearly British spelling should be used. If writing for an American audience then U.S. spelling should be used. If writing for a general readership then the choice is yours. Your choice should be based on two main considerations: (i) Are there more readers used to U.S. spelling than readers used to British spelling? (Probably yes.) (ii) Which spelling looks and sounds best? In most cases, in my opinion, it is the U.S. spelling, e.g., "color" instead of "colour", but sometimes the British.
At times, however, I will use the British spelling of a word even though I suppose my audience to be mainly American, as in the case of "burned" (U.S.) and "burnt" (British). The reason is that the spelling "burnt" is superior to "burned" because (i) the word is more easily and more quickly pronounced as "burnt" (unvoiced final consonant) rather than "burned" (voiced final consonant) and (ii) in this case that spelling which reflects the pronunciation is better. If Americans have any sense then they will see the validity of this argument and stop spelling the word in their ridiculous manner as "burned" (as if they were quite incapable of forming the past tense of a verb by any means other than adding "-ed").
Sometimes the choice is not easy. Should one use "plough" (British) or "plow" (American)? Did the farmer plough his land or did he plow it? "Plow" is close in spelling to "blow", but the two words are pronounced differently. Of course, the same is nearly as true of "plough" and "trough". There's really no good solution to this problem. In such cases just choose one spelling and use it consistently throughout (though in a piece of writing intended for a different audience you might use an alternative spelling).
By the way, note that if a sentence is included in parentheses then the period, or "full stop" in British English, goes before the closing parenthesis. (It's also poor style to have two consecutive sentences each enclosed in parentheses.) (It looks as if you don't know when to stop adding comments to what went before.) (And it's also better, although not absolutely necessary, to avoid nesting parentheses (or brackets, or braces); it can be confusing (after all (as they say), English is not LISP (that's a computer language (you knew that, didn't you?)).)
I also incline toward the principle of spell-as-you-speak (as with "burnt" rather than "burned"), but although this principle is fully implemented in languages such as German, English spelling is so variable that a strict implementation of this in English would result in chaos and confusion (e.g., "Thuh stayk is pritti tuff"). Let's just say that when considering whether to use the American or the British spelling of a word the principle of spell-as-you-speak should be given some wate, er, wayt, no, wait, I mean, weight.
This principle can be taken to extremes, with unfortunate results. In recent years some among those youth of inferior mental ability have taken to spelling (even in written English) "you" as "u", "are" as "r" and similar barbarisms. This pernicious habit presumably has arisen from the need to compress text when sending short messages by cellphone, as in "c u 2nit". This sort of thing may be OK for cellphone dialog, but when this spelling is carried over into written English it suggests that the writer cannot remember which spelling is appropriate for which medium of communication and thus has the mental capacity of a chimpanzee.
There is one word, spelt differently in American and British English, which presents a problem.
During the 1980s one would occasionally see in the US the sign:
WHAT TO DO IN THE EVENT OF NUCLEAR ATTACK
Bend over and kiss your ass goodbye
To someone used to British spelling this might seem puzzling. Jesus is said to have ridden an ass into Jerusalem, but hardly anyone gets around on an ass these days, even to get into Jerusalem. And to kiss one's ass goodbye? Rather, one would think, one's spouse, child or mother.
But our Brit would understand if he saw:
WHAT TO DO IN THE EVENT OF NUCLEAR ATTACK
Bend over and kiss your arse goodbye
Since "ass" is ambiguous, even the obtuse Americans should be able to understand that, for the sake of clarity, it is better to use "ass" to refer to the donkey-like animal and to use "arse" to refer to one's posterior. This matter is no longer merely scholastic now that the warmongers Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Blair and Sharon of the Axis of Evil (the U.S., Britain and Israel) have embarked on a program of terrorism and military conquest of the world leading to a situation of international hostility which is very likely to go nuclear at some point within the next few years, in which case you can kiss your arse goodbye.
Dash vs. Hyphen
The hyphen, "-", is used to join words (or morphemes) to form other words, as in "semi-detached" and "vote-fixing". The dash, "—", is used to separate phrases. But American editors perversely use the hyphen for both purposes.
As stated at the beginning of this page, the essence of good style is clarity. Whatever contributes to lack of clarity, or ambiguity, contributes to poor style (unless the ambiguity is intentional, as it might be in a poem intended to produce a pleasant state of puzzlement in the mind of the reader or hearer).
American writers and editors routinely use a hyphen (without ajacent spaces even) to separate related phrases, or to insert a parenthetic phrase, where they should use a dash. Almost any article edited by an American displays this defect, e.g.:My travels opened my mind to the world-shattering my illusions ...
This should be:My travels opened my mind to the world — shattering my illusions ...
The reason it should be so is quite simple: "world-shattering" is an adjective, as in "a world-shattering revelation". When a reader (American or not) encounters "world-shattering" in the first sentence he (or his subconscious language-processing facility) has to answer the question: Is this the adjective "world-shattering" or does "world" end a phrase and "shattering" begin another? So we see that in the first sentence "world-shattering" is ambiguous, and hinders comprehension. It is thus bad style.
This error is especially stupid because it is so easy to avoid: Just use "—" (with adjacent spaces) instead of "-". But, no, American editors persist in this idiocy, probably because that's what they have been told to do and they are robotically "just following orders". (One might here ask whether the adverb robotically should be roboticly, since the adjective is robotic not robotical, but in U.S. English robotically seems standard.)
Another example comes from a U.S. website concerned with medical news. In an article about ozone pollution we read:
At ground level, ozone-created when pollutants interact with sunlight-is a major component of smog.
Something which is created by ozone is "ozone-created", which is an adjective. An adjective is usually followed by a noun, or at least there is always some object which is described by an adjective. So when one reads "ozone-created" one's brain immediately looks for the noun/object to which this (apparent) adjective applies. But there is none. Momentary mental confusion ensues, until one's brain realizes that the sentence should have been written:
At ground level, ozone — created when pollutants interact with sunlight — is a major component of smog.
So here is another illustration of the fact that using a hyphen (without adjacent spaces) when a dash is needed places an unnecessary obstacle in the way of understanding what is being read. No doubt most U.S. writers and editors will continue this idiotic practice but you do not have to follow their example.
In HTML, by the way, the "—" in displayed text is obtained by the use of —. — should be avoided because that does not work correctly in all browsers.
The Political Significance of Education
"Martin Luther King III, the son of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., has said the reason Dr. King was assassinated was that Dr. King was asking for redistribution of wealth and power (remember that a 1979 Congressional Committee determined that there were indeed conspiracies to kill Martin Luther King and JFK). It has been argued that the real enemies of U.S.-based multinational monied interests are minorities who have been denied equal educational access in the past, who are in dire need of infusions of public money into their school systems, and who, once educated, would start voting in increasing numbers in favor of greater social programs and a redistribution of power in America.
"How valuable is education in drawing a person into political or civic life? Politicians are well aware of the correlation between the likelihood of voting and economic and educational background. Politicians know even though more than half of the total electorate, voting and nonvoting, makes less than $30,000 per year family income, more than half of the votes actually cast are by voters with family incomes greater than $30,000 per year, skewing election results according to higher income and education. If American education were to improve across the board, one might assume that whether or not incomes showed a corresponding improvement, voting rates would increase most in those sectors currently receiving inferior education."
From "Minorities and Voting", The Duplicity of the War on Drugs.
Relevant pages on this website:
- Dubya's School Voucher Proposal
- Teachers Without a Clue
- 6 Year Old Busted For Candy
- What Americans Know Or rather: What Americans Don't Know
- No Child's Behind Left
- Nancy Willard: Filtering Software: The Religious Connection
Relevant external links:
- Edgar J. Steele: Brown vs. the Bored
- John Dvorak: The Dumbing Down of America
- Merriam-Webster Dictionary
- World Wide Words
- Plain English Campaign
- High school student expelled for possession of Advil
- The Underground History of American Education
- English Grammar Gone Awry
- The Horrors of Public Education
- Masters in English — Accredited Online Masters in English Programs
- The Decline and Fall of the English Language in the Uncommonly Stupid States of America (USSA)
A copy of the Serendipity website is available on CD-ROM. Details here.
Top of page Serendipity Home Page